Recognizing and Responding to Compassion Fatigue

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In a March 2007 Newsweek article, U.S. Army officials stated that in Iraq in 2006, 33 percent of behavioral health personnel, 45 percent of primary care specialists, and 27 percent of chaplains reported “high” to “very high” levels of provider fatigue. Not only do we see service members returning with serious trauma reactions, but we see traumatized caregivers as well. By learning how to recognize and respond to these feelings of burnout or emotional fatigue, caregivers can better equip themselves to stay healthy while caring for others.

Caregivers can recognize compassion fatigue if they understand the symptoms.

While the symptoms of compassion fatigue can be disruptive, caregivers who learn to recognize them can create positive change and increase their resilience. It’s important to address these feelings of stress or burnout before they become too disruptive. Stress can have strong physical effects on the body, including distorted vision or hearing, slowed digestion, muscle tension, and high blood pressure and blood sugar. If left unchecked, these symptoms can become more serious, causing depression/anxiety; dehydration; heart damage; libido changes; changes in sleep patterns, appetite, and digestion; fatigue; and irritability.

Answer these questions to see if you may be at risk for compassion fatigue.

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, it’s likely time to put the same energy into caring for yourself that you put into caring for others.

  • Do you feel personally responsible for a situation or indispensable to the well-being of the person you’re helping?
  • Do you waver between feelings of anxiety and feelings of numbness?
  • Have you experienced changes in appetite or sleeping?
  • At the end of the day, do you have trouble “turning off” all the problems you have been exposed to during the day?
  • Have you been experiencing more tension, headaches, stomachaches, or fatigue?
  • Have you used alcohol to manage stress?
  • Do you have difficulty balancing your work and family life?
  • Do you feel that you can never do enough?
  • Do you feel helpless or hopeless?

Feelings of helplessness can come from an unrealistic sense of one’s own capabilities. Some of the most caring staff can be struck by compassion fatigue, and when it occurs, their previous sense of hope and optimism may diminish. The caregiver may feel ineffective and dispirited. This is a normal response to working as a helper—particularly when one is overloaded.

Click this link to view and download the Professional Quality of Life Scale. This survey tool measures levels of compassion satisfaction and fatigue in a caregiver’s professional life.

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Click this link to view and download the Professional Quality of Life Scale.

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Self-evaluation can help caregivers determine whether they are fatigued.

If you’re still unsure whether you suffer from or are at risk for compassion fatigue, complete the following self-evaluation exercise:

Write down a list of all the things you do for others, including what you do at home and with friends and family. As you develop this list, try to identify the main stressors. Do your friends and family continually turn to you for support or help in dealing with crisis? Is it hard for you to say “no” to requests for help? How do you feel when you examine this list? Do you feel any areas of resentment?

Next, make a list of all the activities you do to “recharge your battery.” How do you nurture yourself? To whom do you turn when you need support?

Take a look at the two lists. What conclusions can you draw? Is there balance in your life? If you found the first list easier to develop, and if it is a lot longer, you are probably at risk for compassion fatigue.

The most effective response is prevention, but effective self-care goes a long way.

Unfortunately, compassion fatigue may not be obvious to the caregiver until she or he is already emotionally and physically exhausted. The good news is that there are always steps caregivers can take to turn things around and develop a more balanced ability to care for themselves while caring for others.